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By Greg Garno, Managing Sports Editor
Published August 29, 2014
Brady Hoke knew his team needed a change in February.
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He knew his team needed something if he had any hope of avoiding last season’s ugly finish, something different than a new offensive coordinator or a shuffling of a linebacking corps. He needed something that affected everyone.
So he called in team leaders, like senior Jake Ryan and senior Devin Gardner, to his office, one by one, to tell them the news: There would be no captains until after the season. Veteran players would get a shot to lead the coin toss.
But anyone had a chance to emerge and take on responsibility.
In April, he sat outside his office after the Spring Game and discussed creating leadership groups for each class, a way to communicate with more than just four captains.
In August, he said everyone was capable of being a leader and that he had just as much confidence in younger players as he did older players.
But this decision was coming since December, after his team unraveled against Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and finished 7-6. He knew when his players, like senior Frank Clark, acknowledged after the game that guys “lost the will to play as a family.”
The Michigan coach admitted his team needed to be closer. He knew then the difference in this year’s Michigan football team lies with its leadership.
And that’s why this team will succeed, even if nobody believes them.
Brady Hoke needed to break away from Rich Rodriguez and everything he left at Michigan.
He couldn’t resemble Rodriguez if he wanted to gain the support of fans, staff and alumni. A team that needed positive PR needed to disassociate itself with a period marred by losses.
Hoke entered not wearing a headset and chose not to eat on gamedays. He installed a new offense that brought Michigan back to the traditional pro-style setup. And then he changed the leadership format.
Instead of selecting captains each game, like Rodriguez did, he selected them at the beginning of the season with this reasoning:
“I think it’s so important to define who the leaders of that football team are,” Hoke said in 2011. “It’s going to be those kids making those votes, and I think it’s important to have those captains in place.”
It worked with leaders like David Molk, Mike Martin, Denard Robinson or Jordan Kovacs, guys who reached out to others and led by example.
But he watched his system backfire last year when he relied on players like Taylor Lewan, whose personality interfered, or Cam Gordon, who was often too quiet, or Jake Ryan, who was stuck on the sideline recovering from an injury.
"I have to be a better leader. I should have taken some of the leadership (opportunities) and not anointed some of that," Hoke said in April. "I could have done a much better job with consistency.”
The system had mixed results under Rodriguez, and the Wolverines never won more than seven games.
What Hoke needed was to disassociate with part of his old self.
Changing the leadership still won’t increase the odds of winning a Big Ten title. That much is still left to how well the offense plays and how Michigan finishes against the likes of Michigan State or Ohio State
But when this team needs to rally in the face of adversity, to pull away from upsets or pull together against ranked teams, the new leadership and the closer atmosphere will shine through.
A new leadership system won’t make the offensive line better. It will help them buckle down late in the game or rally behind its quarterback, though.
It won’t develop a defensive line into a reckoning force. But it will keep it from noticing a drop off on line changes.
Running backs won’t start gaining more yards just because of a new leadership system. However, they will pick up blocks and be willing to take a hit if it means the team succeeds.
You didn’t see those things last season when they mattered most. That’s how you finish 7-6. That’s how you find yourself on the hot seat in your fourth year as head coach.
“We know that we’re in this fight together,” Gardner said to reporters on Monday. “We were all to blame for what happened. We understand that.”
And they’ll be better for it this season.
Garno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @G_Garno.